Film Criticism on Canvas

From the June 1982 American Film. — J.R.

Fans of the brilliant, eccentric, and pioneering film critic Manny Farber who have been regretting his recent absence from the scene simply haven’t been looking in the right places. In fact, the sixty-five-year-old writer, teacher, and former carpenter has been a painter even longer than he’s been a critic, and over the past few years he’s been doing what he calls “auteur” paintings — canvases that recast the subjects and methods of his criticism in a number of fascinating ways.

Using a bird’s-eye view of small objects on a stagelike platform, his paintings, paens to such directors as Howard Hawks [see Howard Hawks II, 1977,  472 x 500, above], Sam Peckinpah, Marguerite Duras, and William Wellman illuminate the filmmakers’ styles and themes. “The compositions and structures are always always based on my take on the directors,” Farber says. “And they’re critical in the fact that I’m usually going away from what I think is known territory, in painting as well as in movies.”

One example of Farber’s oddball approach is his Stan & Ollie, which is full of references to the comedies of Laurel and Hardy, but scarcely uses their faces at all.… Read more »

Both Sides of John Cassavetes

From The Movie, Chapter 65, 1981.-– J.R.

One of the most paradoxical and controversial of all the American independents, John Cassavetes has always placed actors and acting at the center of his film-making conceptions. An actor himself, he has used his craft as a means of financing his own productions — which are themselves celebrations of acting. ‘Directing really is a full-time hobby with me,’ he confessed in an interview in the late Sixties. ‘I consider myself an amateur film-maker and a professional actor.’

Born on December 9th, 1929 in New York City, the son of a Greek immigrant who made and then lost a fortune in business, Cassavetes attended Colgate College as an English major. It was there that his interest in acting was sparked, and he enrolled in the American Academy of Dramatic Arts shortly after graduation.

Delinquent turns director

Following a stage debut in a stock company and a bit part in a Hollywood feature, Fourteen Hours (1951), Cassavetes gradually acquired his reputation as a young actor by appearing in television dramas, where he specialized in juvenile delinquent parts. By the mid-Fifties, budget, he was re-creating one of these roles in a film about a family being held captive by hoodlums, The Night Holds Terror (1955).… Read more »

Letter from London (1977)

From American Film (April 1977). I got this assignment because I had just left two and a half years of London employment at the British Film Institute when I wrote it, so that I had been directly involved in some of the events described, having prepared the U.K. pressbook for Celine and Julie Go Boating, written about the Edinburgh Film Festival’s Screen events for Sight and Sound, and also written the programme notes for the National Film Theatre’s Altman retrospective.

For better and for worse, I suspect that the main interest of this piece today, 43 years later, is as a time capsule. -– J.R.

It sounds like hyperbole, but London seems well on its way toward becoming a livelier haven for “serious” film buffs than New York City. How did it happen? After all, the world’s third largest city has never seemed like the most bustling of movie towns.

Despite the celebrated resources of the British Film Institute and the prestige of some of the film schools, theater has always had a much firmer grip on the cultural life here; a casual look at any of the three television channels will prove it. This fact hasn’t been altered in the slightest by what’s been happening lately within the filmgoing community — a sharp increase in activity.… Read more »

The Wild One

This book review appeared in the July 7, 1991 issue of Newsday. More recently (Christmas eve, 2014), I’ve read Susan L. Mizruchi’s instructive Brando’s Smile: His Life, Thought, and Work (Norton), which finds far more coherence in Brando’s career than Schickel did. — J.R.

BRANDO: A Life in Our Times, by Richard Schickel. Atheneum, 271 pp., $21.95

“Of the many illusions celebrity foists upon us the illusion of coherence, the senses that these are privileged people in the world who somehow know what they are doing in ways that we do not, is the largest, and possibly the most dangerous. But Marlon Brando has kept faith with his incoherence.”

Arriving at this judgment toward the end of a head-scratching appraisal of the logic and meaning of Marlon Brando’s career, critic Richard Schickel seems to be breathing a sigh of relief, and some readers may feel like joining him. It’s an honorable and instructive admission of defeat, and while one may disagree by finding some coherence where Schickel does not — I happen to relish Brando’s modest and earthy performance in The Freshman as a refreshing autocritique of his posturing role in The Godfather (which Schickel considers his last “real” performance) — it’s still a premise that one can hang an exploratory book on.… Read more »

CRUMB Reconsidered

Written in 2010 for Criterion’s DVD and Blu-Ray. This is the second of my essays about Terry Zwigoff’s documentary; for the first one, written 15 years earlier, go here. — J.R.

CRUMB-DVD

Now that Terry Zwigoff’s Crumb is about fifteen years old, it seems pretty safe to say that it has evolved from being a potential classic to actually becoming one. But what kind? A documentary portrait of a comic-book artist, musician, and nerdy outsider? A personal film essay? A cultural study? An account of family dysfunction and sexual obsession? Or maybe just a meditation on what it means to be an American male artist — specifically, one so traumatized by his adolescence that he has never found a way of fully growing past it.

 

In fact, Crumb is all these things, with a generous amount of thoughtful art criticism thrown in as well. An old friend of Robert Crumb’s, Terry Zwigoff shot the movie over six years and edited it over three, and the multifaceted density and sometimes disturbing nature of what he has to show and say over two hours seems partly a function of the amount of time he had to mull it over. It’s worth adding that he was in therapy for part of that time, which surely had an impact on the film’s searching thoughtfulness and on Zwigoff’s own investment in the material.… Read more »

Responses to Questions about Andrei Tarkovsky from Hossein Eidizadeh in November 2015

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Tarkovsky

 

1. Are Tarkovsky’s movies still new (by “NEW” I mean do you find new things in recent viewing of the films or surprised by them)? Can viewers/filmmakers still learn from them?

I find that all of Tarkovsky’s films remain new and full of surprises for me. They don’t “date” at all.

 

2. Should we look at Tarkovsky movies as spiritual movies, religious movies or modern films?

I would say that they’re both spiritual and modern. If they’re also religious, I can’t easily identify them as such.

 

3. Who/what influenced Tarkovsky’s cinema and which contemporary filmmakers are influenced deeply by his cinema?

Tarkovsky’s cinema, by his own account, was influenced by his father’s poetry, and most likely by other Russian poetry as well. I haven’t reread his book Sculpting in Time recently, but I recall that he had a great deal of reverence for Dovzhenko and Bergman, among others; I don’t know whether or how much they may have influenced him directly. 

 

As for the influence of Tarkovsky on other filmmakers, I could cite Béla Tarr and, more recently, Alex Garland in his film Ex Machina, which is clearly indebted to Solaris. There are undoubtedly many others, but these are the first names that spring to mind.Read more »

Please Watch Carefully [THE HEART OF THE WORLD]

From the Chicago Reader (February 22, 2001). — J.R.

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The Heart of the World****

Directed and written by Guy Maddin

With Leslie Bais, Caelum Vatnsdal, Shaun Balbar, and Hryhory Yulyanovitch Klymkyiev.

THOTW4

It lasts only about seven minutes, making it roughly comparable in length to a Bugs Bunny cartoon, but Guy Maddin’s The Heart of the World – which opens this week at Landmark’s Century Centre with The Last Resort – conjures up a universe so vast and wacky that anyone can get lost in it. Like any film released in February, it has a very poor chance of getting an Oscar, because the Academy Awards nominators — who know better than anyone how such honors are designed to sell more than evaluate — don’t want to consider many candidates released before Thanksgiving. But for my money it’s better than any of the current best-feature nominees. It has more action and is quite a bit funnier. I’d even call it inexhaustible.

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Maddin’s movie premiered last September at the Toronto film festival, which had commissioned it as one of several “preludes” by leading Canadian filmmakers to run unannounced before the features, a series designed to celebrate the festival’s 25th anniversary. It was commonly regarded as the best film shown at this gala event, though I’m not sure I’d go quite that far.… Read more »

Homicide

From the Chicago Reader (October 1, 1991). — J.R.

homicide

David Mamet shares with Ernest Hemingway a mannerist style of macho dialogue made up of short sentences and repeated phrases that lends itself to self-parody as well as parody. In this second step down the ladder from the promise of his first picture (House of Games), he seems to be approximating Hemingway in his mawkish For Whom the Bell Tolls period. Joe Mantegna plays an alienated cop who implausibly discovers his Jewish roots through a couple of cases he’s assigned to, and finds himself manipulated as much by Jewish terrorists as by his superiors on the police force. Despite the occasional snap and crackle of Mamet-talk at its most surreal (“They couldn’t find Joe Louis in a bowl of rice”), the movie is just plain silly when it isn’t merely unbelievable (the usually astute Mantegna, alas, never once springs to life), with a good many unsuspenseful suspense sequences and apolitical political ruminations. W.H. Macy, Natalija Nogulich, Ving Rhames, Rebecca Pidgeon, and Vincent Guastaferro are among the costars (1991). (JR)… Read more »

Divertimento

From the Chicago Reader (August 1, 1994). — J.R.

DIVERT

Jacques Rivette’s alternate version of La belle noiseuse (1991) — running only a little over half as long (at 130 minutes) — uses alternate takes to tell basically the same story, though it and begins and ends somewhat differently and its tone is much lighter and more brittle. Freely adapted from Balzac’s story The Unknown Masterpiece, the film concerns a once-famous, long-inactive painter (Michel Piccoli at his best), living in the country with his wife and former model (Jane Birkin, ditto), who’s inspired to reembark on his most ambitious painting by the mistress (Emmanuelle Beart) of a young painter and admirer who comes to visit him. For all its limitations as a depiction of the way artists work, the longer version owes much of its power to its sense of duration, which ultimately brings one closer to the characters; this snappier, slicker version, more fluid as storytelling, has plenty of virtues of its own, but it’s less likely to linger as long in the mind. Both versions can be read as a sort of apologia on Rivette’s part explaining why he’s backed away from the obsessive intensity of his 60s and 70s work.… Read more »

Review of Paulo Emílio Salles Gomes collection

For CineasteSpring 2020.  – J.R.

SALLESGOMES

 

Paulo Emílio Salles Gomes

On Brazil and Global Cinema 

Edited by Maite Conde and Stephanie Dennison.

Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2018, 242 pp.,

Hardcover: $199.99, Kindle: $64.60, Paperback (from 

University of Chicago Press): $68.00

 

unnamed 

Brazilian critic, film historian, and teacher Paulo Emílio Salles Gomes (1916-77) is principally known outside of Brazil as P.E. Salles Gomes, the author of the 1957 book Jean Vigo — not only a definitive biography, essential to Vigo’s posthumous rediscovery, first published in France (and translated from French to English in the early 1970s by the author), but also clearly one of the first major critical biographies of any filmmaker in any language. The editors of this volume, however, usually refer to him simply as Paulo Emílio, and picking up on their friendly Brazilian etiquette, I will follow suit.

 

$68.00 is an outrageous price for a paperback book less than 300 pages long, suggesting a volume intended only for well-funded libraries and professors with institutional perks to spare. But I’m also obliged to report that this first collection by a major and widely neglected figure in film studies redirects my thoughts about cinema like few other recent books.… Read more »

Art of Darkness Jacques Tourneur’s WICHITA

From the Chicago Reader (December 5, 2003); also reprinted in my collection Goodbye Cinema, Hello Cinephilia. I’m delighted to report that Wichita became available on DVD, and in the correct CinemaScope format, in 2009. — J.R.

Wichita

**** (Masterpiece)

Directed by Jacques Tourneur

Written by Daniel B. Ullman

With Joel McCrea, Vera Miles, Lloyd Bridges, Walter Coy, Wallace Ford, Edgar Buchanan, Peter Graves, Jack Elam, and Mae Clarke.

One reason why Jacques Tourneur (1904-1977) remains a major but neglected Hollywood filmmaker is that elusiveness is at the core of his art. A director of disquiet, absence, and unsettling nocturnal atmospheres whose characters tend to be mysteries to themselves as well as to us, he dwells in uncertainties and ambiguities even when he appears to be studiously following genre conventions. In other words, his brilliance isn’t often apparent because he tends to stay in the shadows. As with Carl Dreyer, it took me years to fully appreciate the textures of his work, but now I can’t get enough of his films.

A case in point is Wichita (1955), Tourneur’s first film in CinemaScope and possibly the most traditional of all his westerns, showing in LaSalle Bank’s classic film series this Saturday.

Read more »

Stars In My Crown

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This somber black-and-white drama (1950) about a small-town preacher (Joel McCrea) in the postbellum south, narrated by the boy he raised (Dean Stockwell), is one of the most neglected films in the history of cinema as well as Jacques Tourneur’s favorite among his own pictures. (Best known for Cat People and Out of the Past, Tourneur often seemed to thrive in obscurity, and by agreeing to direct this picture at MGM for practically nothing he reportedly sabotaged his own career.) A view of the American heartland that’s emotionally engaged but still charged with darkness (a typhoid epidemic and a near lynching are among its key episodes), it recalls some of John Ford’s best work in its complex perception of goodness, and I can’t think of many films that convey a particular community with more pungency. Margaret Fitts adapted a novel by Joe David Brown; with Ellen Drew, James Mitchell, Juano Hernandez, Amanda Blake, Louis Stone, and Alan Hale. 89 min. (JR)

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stars-in-my-crown

 … Read more »

The Wind Will Carry Us

From the Chicago Reader (December 1, 2000). — J.R.

This ambiguous comic masterpiece (1999, 118 min.) could be Abbas Kiarostami’s greatest film to date; it’s undoubtedly his richest and most challenging. A media engineer from Tehran (Behzad Dourani) arrives in a remote mountain village in Iranian Kurdistan, where he and his three-person camera crew secretly wait for a century-old woman to die so they can film or tape an exotic mourning ritual at her funeral. To do this he has to miss a family funeral of his own, and every time his mobile phone rings the poor reception forces him to drive to a cemetery atop a mountain, where he sometimes converses with a man digging a deep hole for an unspecified telecommunications project. Back in the village the digger’s fiancee milks a cow for the engineer while he flirts with her by quoting an erotic poem that gives the movie its title. Over half the major characters — including the crew, the dying woman, and the digger — are kept mainly or exclusively offscreen, and the dense and highly composed sound track often refers to other offscreen elements, peculiarities of Kiarostami’s style that solicit the viewer’s imaginative participation. What’s most impressive about this global newspaper and millennial statement is how much it tells us about our world — especially regarding the acute differences in perception and behavior between media experts and everyone else.… Read more »

The House of Mirth

From the December 22, 2000 Chicago Reader. — J.R.

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“If she slipped she recovered her footing, and it was only afterward that she was aware of having recovered it each time on a slightly lower level.” Edith Wharton’s encapsulation of the narrative form of her tragic (and sexy) 1905 novel, describing the progressive defeat of socialite Lily Bart by the ugly indifference of Wharton’s own leisure class, is given an extra touch of Catholic doom in Terence Davies’s passionate, scrupulous, and personal adaptation, which to a surprising degree preserves the moral complexity of most of the major characters. It’s regrettable if understandable that the Jewishness of social climber Sim Rosedale (Anthony LaPaglia) is no longer an issue, and Lawrence Selden, Lily’s confidante, is somewhat softened by a miscast Eric Stoltz, but the cast as a whole is astonishing — especially Gillian Anderson as Lily and Dan Aykroyd in his finest performance to date. Davies feels and understands the story thoroughly, giving it a raw emotional immediacy that would be unthinkable in the shopper-friendly adaptations of Merchant-Ivory and their imitators, and the film’s feeling for decor and costumes, derived from both John Singer Sargent paintings and Orson Welles’s The Magnificent Ambersons, is exquisite.… Read more »

THE KID WITH A BIKE and Some Other Recent Art Movies

Le gamin au vélo/The Kid with a Bike

 

I’ve recently been thinking that a considerable portion of what I find the most detestable in contemporary commercial filmmaking can be summed up in a single trend: exploitation movies that go out into the world as “serious” art movies,. Admittedly, two very early examples of this trend in talkies, Lang’s M and Hawks’ Scarface, are two of the greatest movies ever made, though neither of these can be accused of stroking and glorifying the audience’s hypocrisy. But ever since the Godfather pictures, it seems, artiness has been working overtime as a kind of built-in alibi for many of the baser impulses in the audience –- various kinds of cynicism viewing corruption as inescapable, everyday, and deeply profound (e.g., Avatar, The Girlfriend Experience, Contagion), extreme violence as a function of specious and hypocritical morality (or, even worse, “sensitivity,” as in Drive or, for that matter, The Passion of the Christ), gimmicky temporal structures (e.g., Tarantino, Memento, Babel) or fatuous psychologizing that are somehow supposed to dignify various forms of boorishness or nastiness (ranging from McQueen’s sexist complacencies and brutalities in Shame to von Trier’s dubious and ongoing validation of his own depression as a practical tool for coping with glitzy catastrophes and atrocities of his own making), and even the sort of Oscar-mongering that can cast a liberal activist (Woody Harrelson) as a racist thug (Rampart) to show us how “complex” the modern world is supposed to be.Read more »